Malaysians go to the polls Monday in an election that seems certain to return Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his ruling coalition to power but is unlikely to close the political chasm that was opened by the ouster, arrest and beating of popular deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim last year.
Anwar's name will not appear on the ballot; he remains imprisoned in solitary confinement, serving a six-year sentence for corruption and awaiting continuation of his trial on sodomy charges. But Anwar's case--his treatment by Mahathir and the now-infamous black eye he suffered in a jail-house beating--has been the most important issue of the campaign, uniting disparate opposition forces and deeply dividing the country's dominant Malay community.
A newly formed opposition coalition, the Alternative Front, has run a strong campaign stressing calls for justice and an end to Mahathir's authoritarian brand of leadership. Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Ismail, is seeking her husband's old parliamentary seat in Penang state as head of the newly formed National Justice Party. She is expected to win on a sympathy vote.
Most of the opposition gains are expected to come in the Malay heartland states of the north, and the beneficiary will be the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or Pas, which has frightened many voters with its calls to impose Islamic law in this multiracial, multi-faith country.
Pas is expected to retain control of Kelantan state, now the only one of Malaysia's 13 states not controlled by the ruling coalition. Pas may also take control of state governments in Perlis and Trengganu. The party may win as many as 30 parliamentary seats, according to some estimates, making it the dominant opposition party.
Such an outcome would be a setback for those wishing to form a multi-ethnic opposition, and it would also be a major embarrassment for Mahathir's United Malays National Organization, which claims to be the main party that speaks on behalf of Malays.
The opposition had hoped to deny Mahathir's coalition, the National Front, its traditional two-thirds majority in the Parliament. But that would require winning 65 seats in the 193-member body, and most analysts said the opposition will do well to win 40 to 50.
Such a showing would be a major gain for the opposition, more than doubling the number of seats it has now.
However, many voters appear likely to accept the government's line that the ruling coalition has provided 42 years of impressive economic prosperity and political stability, and those gains should not be gambled by electing an untested opposition coalition.
"What many voters will do is hold their nose and vote for the [National Front] once more," said William F. Case, a lecturer at Griffith University in Australia and an expert on Malaysian politics. "It's not a popular government. But people aren't prepared to vote against it."